Evan Vucci / AP

The Democrats’ generational divide

Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders is a proxy war between older and younger Democrats

February 25, 2016 3:00PM ET

There’s a new divide in the Democratic Party. It’s a divide as much about age as ideology. While older voters clearly support the presidential ambitions of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the younger generation is firmly in favor of her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders. Anyone who wants to fully grasp the changes roiling the party today must pay close attention.

Younger Democrats came of age during a time of blossoming liberalism in America. According to a recent Gallup poll, more Americans self-identify as liberal today than at any time since 1992. Among young Americans, socialism, the ideological label Sanders uses to describe himself, polls about as well as capitalism. While it has been long accepted that people grow more conservative with age, recent research calls this truism into question.

According to political scientists Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gellman, our political views form primarily from the ages of 14 to 24 and become more stable with time. This explains why the rise of the modern conservative movement in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan still shapes our politics today.

In 1988, The New York Times noted that only 20 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 identified as Republican eight years earlier. By 1988, however, 33 percent of those voters (by then age 26 to 37) were members of the Republican Party. As the conservative writer David Frum noted in 2008, “The 20-somethings of the 1980s remain the most Republican cohort in the electorate to this day.”

Baby boomer Democrats came of age within this context and, understandably, internalized its lessons. Voters who were children or teenagers during the liberal optimism of the 1960s Great Society reached adulthood at the same time as a historic rightward political shift. The Democratic Party ignored and downplayed this sea change, and — apart from the interregnum when President Gerald Ford, a weak successor to Richard Nixon, lost re-election to Jimmy Carter — the party was punished with sound defeat in election after election. Only when it finally came to terms with this shift and moderated its platform accordingly was it able to secure electoral victories, starting with Bill Clinton’s first presidential win in 1992.

The ideological battle waging among Democratic voters is a conflict that reaches back over 30 years, and yet the two sides’ competing visions have rarely been this distinct. Whether it was Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean versus John Kerry or Jesse Jackson versus Michael Dukakis, the ideological separation has remained remarkably stable through recent decades. How one views this divide is likely as much a function of life experience as of ideological preference. How else to account for the huge generational gap separating Clinton’s supporters from Sanders’?

In early Democratic primaries, Clinton has fared best among voters older than 65, a voting bloc that still remembers the embarrassing losses the Democrats faced after their midcentury electoral dominance. A humbling string of defeats profoundly transformed the Democrats’ conception of the American electorate. The failures are well documented: George McGovern, hero of the liberal wing of the party, was soundly defeated by Richard Nixon in 1972. Carter won the 1976 election, but in doing so forged an ignominious legacy that probably did the party more harm than good.

The new generation of left-leaning Democrats has been increasingly unwilling to cede ideological ground to those who still operate under old Reagan-era assumptions.

A series of electoral losses by liberal Democrats — the defeats of Mondale and Dukakis to Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively, followed by the election of proud moderate Bill Clinton — seemed to affirm the belief that victory was possible for the Democrats only if they moved toward the center. A new era in American politics had arrived, and nearly three decades would pass before the election of Obama provided the left wing of the Democratic Party with anything resembling real influence over the national dialogue. While Obama is no leftist, his campaign served as a useful proof of concept for the dormant left wing of the Democratic Party: Energy and youth can be marshaled to secure electoral success. But for many of those leftists, Obama’s presidency has been a bitter failure. A moderate with keen political instincts, he campaigned on left-wing principles without making many left-wing promises.

In the immediate term, the party’s cynical centrist shift after the Reagan-Bush years was likely necessary for sheer political self-preservation. In the longer term, the strategy only exacerbated the party’s internal divisions.

For unapologetic liberals, the late 1980s and early 1990s were a lonely time. But a new, younger generation of Democrats would soon come of age — a generation without the painful memories of the party’s recent electoral defeats and largely unconcerned with the lessons of the Reagan years. This new generation of left-leaning Democrats has been increasingly unwilling to cede ideological ground to those who still operate under old Reagan-era assumptions.

The early success of Sanders — after Obama’s unprecedented popularity among young voters — lends credence to the notion that young left-wingers are looking to the Democratic Party to internalize these changes and to present an unapologetically progressive platform once more. These demands are at odds with the preferences of older, more moderate Democrats, who remember all too well the painful lessons of the past.

It’s possible that the excitement around Sanders is a mirage, a classic bit of liberal myopia. It’s also possible that the concerns of older Democrats are based on a set of assumptions about the country’s electorate so outdated as to be meaningless. It’s understandable that young Democrats might not see a lot of useful lessons to be gained from the political battles of the 1980s; it’s also understandable that older Democrats might not be convinced that some new left-wing epoch is suddenly upon us.

Where you stand on this debate is likely influenced by your historical context. But only time will tell if Democratic voters are ready to make a Jewish socialist from Brooklyn their next nominee or if the politics of today are still to be viewed through the prisms of the past.

Tim Donovan is a freelance writer who has contributed to Vice, Salon, AlterNet, Mic and elsewhere. He lives in Queens in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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